Originally published February 9, 2017 on Blavity
I’ve heard folks describe Jack and Jill of America, Incorporated as “a club for bourgeois black kids with rich parents,” but that sounds like one of Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts. In reality, Jack and Jill is a community that extends black families and friendship, raises funds for charitable causes, encourages cultural understanding and develops leaders. Sure, not every single black person is in Jack and Jill, perhaps that comes off as exclusive, but it is a membership organization. If you’re mad at one membership organization, be mad at all of them. Furthermore, the notion that Jack and Jill is only for the privileged misses the point. If that’s your excuse to disparage Jack and Jill, perhaps you fail to realize that historical experiences of black families in America are multifaceted. Based on its origin and legacy, there is no question that Jack and Jill is a staple of black history and culture in a broad sense. Personally, being a member taught me that blackness is in the eye of the beholder.
Like all great things, Jack and Jill was founded by a black woman. Marion Stubbs Thomas established it on January 24, 1938, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During that time, Franklin D. Roosevelt was President. He was most known for the New Deal, an effort to stabilize the failing American economy in the midst of the Great Depression. The New Deal did more harm than help for civil rights as many of its programs thwarted black economic advancement. For example, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) refused to grant mortgages for blacks who tried to buy into white neighborhoods. In addition to federal housing, racial discrimination was also prevalent in youth development programs. Virtually no opportunities existed for black family engagement.
Thomas had a vision for a club that would fill that void. She along with twenty other black mothers assembled with the mission to create an organization that would improve the quality of life for their children through social, cultural and educational activities. Twenty-one women supporting one another to cultivate formative opportunities and experiences for their kids is black girl magic at its finest.
In the premier issue of Jack and Jill’s annual publication, Up the Hill, Thomas recounted, “Little did we dream at the time that this idea, which was so important and inspiring, would grow to such proportions.” Soon after its founding in Philadelphia, mothers in New York City and Washington, D.C. established chapters of their own. By the end of World War II, ten chapters arose which necessitated the development of a constitution and bylaws, subsequently leading to incorporation. Today, Jack and Jill has more than 40,000 members in 230 chapters across the country with exemplary national programming focused on teen leadership, financial literacy, and legislative advocacy. Clearly, it has a lot to offer its members, but its most important attribute is that it allows black families and black youth to create their own black history.
Growing up, my family and I were members the Greensboro Chapter of Jack and Jill, part of the Mighty Mid-Atlantic Region. Just like the assumption, everyone in Jack and Jill is filthy rich with two parents, another misnomer is that Jack and Jill is only for black kids that attend predominately white schools. That’s not true. That was definitely not the case in my chapter which had kids from private schools, public schools, charter schools and homeschools. A more appropriate postulation is that Jack and Jill can be helpful for black children in predominantly white environments. Until high school, I was in private school. Being the only black kid for eight years was exhausting, but it also hindered how other black kids related to me. When shade is being thrown from both sides, it can really be hard on a kid’s confidence. In private school, I felt alienated because of prejudice, to be blunt. I grew up in the same neighborhoods as the majority of the white kids in my class, but some didn’t believe me. How could they not believe me? We were neighbors! Divergently, on my first day of public high school I chose to wear brown leather Birkenstocks. The school itself was culturally diverse, but when I sat down in my predominantly black homeroom class, I was immediately the butt of the joke. The phrase wasn’t popular then, but I basically was bombarded with, “What are those?” ‘Oh,’ and I was called “white girl.” After that embarrassing, now laughable situation, I threw those beautiful leather sandals in the dumpster, which is actually the saddest part of the story. When I attended Jack and Jill meetings, all the insecurity disappeared. No one questioned where I lived and no one was calling me a white girl. I felt at home. I was motivated to be myself– kind of bad and kind of boujee, 100% black and proud.
Participating in Jack and Jill’s initiatives provided several foundational firsts for me. The first article to which I ever contributed was inspired by the aforementioned feeling of not being black enough and being black in a white world. I credit much of my knack for public service to registering youth voters or encouraging others to say no to drunk driving with my peers. In Jack and Jill, I got my first taste of public recognition when I received the “Teen Achiever Award” before going to college. Even my first networking experiences came from attending the Teen Regional Conferences. And man, I lived for regionals. For a weekend in a selected city families from all over a region come together to fellowship, participate in service and attend educational sessions. There is the highly anticipated themed dance which is designed for the teens and patrolled by no-nonsense mothers and fathers. You can reconnect with old friends and make new ones. It’s like a family reunion.
Many of the connections I made through Jack and Jill have withstood the test of time. It’s not to say all the alumni are my dearest friends, but as adults, we have a peripheral connection. In a sense, we grew up together. It’s cool to see what we’ve become. A few years back, a young woman who was in my local chapter had an internship opportunity in D.C. her mother, who is friends with mine, contacted me asking for assistance. It was as if she was a blood relative, I didn’t hesitate. I contacted her daughter, shared neighborhood suggestions and offered advice. That’s the takeaway of a nexus developed by black women for black people over seventy-five years ago. The presence of familial interconnection and self-reliance in the black community is a powerful testament to the innovation behind its inception.